In Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on June 14, a country that murders journalists, arrests political activists and has spent the last three years slaughtering thousands of Syrian civilians in airstrikes will host the opening match of the 2018 World Cup Finals.
In four years’ time, the next World Cup Finals are scheduled to take place in Qatar, where an estimated 1,200 construction workers, laboring in conditions of near-slavery, have already died building the tournament’s stadiums in suffocating heat.
When placed besides these human-rights abusers who are hosting the world’s premier sports tournament, it hardly seems fair that Israel – for all its faults – should be denied the joy of hosting just one paltry friendly soccer match against Argentina’s national team in Jerusalem.
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But the stark truth is that, contrary to what athletes and sporting federations always say, sports and politics do mix. If you’re an oil-rich dictatorship, that is.
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A despot with a nation’s resources at his disposal can bask in the glory of hosting a World Cup or an Olympic Games, if he is willing to spend his subjects’ money on bribing the grandees of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, or the venal members of the International Olympic Committee. Once hosting rights have been bought and bagged, billions more will be spent on new stadiums, hotels, roads and airports, much of which will be left to molder once the tournament is over – just like the silent crumbling monuments in Sochi of President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 Winter Olympics, which cost Russia $50 billion.
All that works, of course, if you are dictator who can buy a tournament and stifle any internal dissent. Hosting a World Cup is to modern-day tyrants what building pyramids was to the Pharaohs of Egypt – except the stadiums are unlikely to still be standing in another 4,500 years. It doesn’t work so well in countries that at least aspire to be democratic.
U.S. President Donald Trump experienced it this week when he disinvited Super Bowl champion the Philadelphia Eagles from the White House, after it turned out only a handful of the team were planning to show up. Trump has angered many American athletes by the heavy-handed way in which he has waded into the controversy over some players taking a kneel during the national anthem. Both NFL and NBA champions have kept away from the customary White House visits since he took office.
And now Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev are learning the hard way not to overtly politicize sports.
Both worked to ensure that the Israel-Argentina match, which was to be played this Saturday in the newish stadium in Haifa – at the express request of the Argentinians – be moved to Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium for their own political glory. Netanyahu used his own channel to the friendly Argentine President Mauricio Macri. Regev, in her more blunt manner, wielded the budget of the Culture and Sports Ministry, paying the commercial company that organized the game to move it to Jerusalem.
We’ll never know for certain why exactly the game was canceled. Was it really because of the switch to Jerusalem and the resulting pressure from the Palestinians and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement? Were there indeed threats of violence against the families of Argentina’s star player Lionel Messi and other teammates, as has been reported in the Argentine media? Was the decision actually sparked by the Argentine players’ lack of interest in a superfluous match against an inferior Israeli team that has only qualified for a World Cup once, 48 years ago, and which would have just disrupted their World Cup training?
Most likely it was a combination of all of the above. But it doesn’t matter. Because from the moment Netanyahu and Regev monopolized the match, making it a key event in the 70th anniversary of independence celebrations and insisting on its move to Jerusalem for reasons of national pride, they ensured that the cancellation would be a national humiliation.
Regev is not the kind of politician who ever learns a lesson. But if she was, this week’s lesson would be that if you really want to politicize a sporting event, the 2.7 million shekels ($760,000) of taxpayer money she spent was not nearly enough. Either you go all the way and spend billions on an entire tournament, or you don’t bother at all.
Sure, this is unquestionably a victory for the BDS movement. But it also highlights how rare these victories are and how ineffectual BDS actually is – despite all the hype around it. In the 13 years since the campaign was launched, Israel’s global trade has skyrocketed. Despite being for most of that time under a hard-line, right-wing government that has refused to make any concessions to the Palestinians, it is also enjoying unprecedented relations with more countries around the world than ever before.
In this time, BDS successes have amounted to no more than the online bullying of a few artists and academics not to visit the country and disrupting concerts by Israelis abroad. In desperation, the handful of BDS activists who exist – largely on social media – have taken to claiming fake victories. One of these was actor Natalie Portman’s decision not to share a platform with Netanyahu at a glitzy oligarchs’ awards dinner, despite Portman making it clear this was in no way a boycott of Israel itself. More recently, they invented a boycott by the singer Shakira – though the concert she apparently canceled had never even been scheduled.
The cancellation of the Argentina soccer match occurred at the height of Netanyahu’s victory lap through Europe, while he was busy rubbing the faces of the leaders of Germany, France and Britain into their failure to keep the Iran deal together.
This was low-hanging fruit for the BDSers. If adding pressure on a team of tense soccer players who were reluctant to come anyway (they wouldn’t even take time off from their training to meet fellow countryman and fan Pope Francis) counts as a success, then the campaign is in a sorry state indeed.
Ultimately, it was the hubris of Netanyahu and Regev that allowed them to score an easy point, in front of an open goal.